Peeking Behind the Locked Door: A Survey of Escape Room Facilities

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1 Please cite as: Nicholson, S. (2015). Peeking behind the locked door: A survey of escape room facilities. White Paper available at Peeking Behind the Locked Door: A Survey of Escape Room Facilities Scott Nicholson Professor, Game Design and Development Wilfrid Laurier University, Brantford, Ontario, Canada Director, Brantford Games Network and BGNlab This is a living document. Last updated: 5/24/2015. Abstract: Escape rooms are live- action team- based games where players discover clues, solve puzzles, and accomplish tasks in one or more rooms in order to accomplish a specific goal (usually escaping from the room) in a limited amount of time. This paper presents the results from a survey answered by 175 escape room facilities from around the world about their facilities. The paper highlights different themes, demographics of players, room features, and other design patterns popular in escape rooms at the start of Given the rapid growth and evolution of escape rooms, this paper serves to document the current state of this phenomenon. Introduction You have one hour to find the clues, solve the puzzles, and locate the key that will unlock this door. Good luck! Figure 1: The Great Escape Room (before) (used with permission). Escape rooms are live- action team- based games where players discover clues, solve puzzles, and accomplish tasks in one or more rooms in order to accomplish a specific goal (usually escaping from the room) in a limited amount of time. The escape room experience starts with the players meeting their gamemaster, who 1

2 briefs them on what will be happening over the next hour and gives them the rules for the game. If there is a backstory, the players may watch a video or be given a passage to read. The door is closed and locked and a countdown clock begins. Players explore the room, tentatively at first but then more aggressively as time goes on, looking everywhere for clues. There are usually numbers, symbols, or pictures on the walls but no apparent guide to understanding what they are there for. The first part of the experience is searching through drawers, boxes, pockets of clothing, and underneath and behind everything; well- communicating teams call out what they find and organize things that might go together. At some point, players will discover a puzzle and figure out how it can be solved; some puzzles have directions and others do not. The solution to one puzzle will lead to something else it may be a code for a padlock, the starting key for another puzzle, a door that opens to another room, a piece for a meta- puzzle, or it may be a red herring. The group of Figure 2: The Great Escape Room in Play (used with permission) players continues to work on puzzles, sharing information about what is found. If they are stuck, there is usually a way for a team to get a hint to help them continue. As the time ticks on, the puzzles become more complex, many times all feeding into a final puzzle which will provide the team with the key or code needed to open the door and escape. At the end of the game, the gamemaster leads the team through a debriefing process, answering questions and explaining puzzles if they have questions, and then the staff rushes to reset the room for the next team. An escape room facility may have multiple rooms, each with a different theme, so this process is going on simultaneously for many groups of players and gamemasters. Escape rooms require teamwork, communication, and delegation as well as critical thinking, attention to detail, and lateral thinking. They are accessible to a wide age range of players and do not favor any gender; in fact, the most successful teams are those that are made up of players with a variety of experiences, skills, background knowledge, and physical abilities. As they are live- action games taking place in the physical world, they create opportunities for players to engage directly with each other in the same way that tabletop games do; players eager to look at something other than a glowing screen are flocking to games in the physical world for face- to- face engagement opportunities. The purpose of this paper is to explore the current state of the escape room industry through a large- scale survey and to offer advice to escape room designers and facilities. Because the contents of escape 2

3 rooms are, by nature, kept a secret and it is a highly competitive marketplace, there are not resources publicly available to help those wanting to start or improve an escape room. A survey that combines responses from many different escape rooms is the first step in creating a public record about escape room facilities in a way that does not infringe upon the secrecy desired by the designers and proprietors of escape rooms. About the Author A Brief and Incomplete History of Escape Rooms It is not the intention of this paper to present a detailed history of escape rooms, so a few precursors are presented as well as the genres of games from which escape rooms evolved. While Wikipedia (and the Wikipedia echo chamber) points to several rooms in 2006, the sources that Wikipedia points to for these facts no longer provide any information about these rooms; those in the escape room community have yet to discover any first- hand accounts or further details about these claims. The earliest well- documented activity calling itself an escape game was from the publishing company SCRAP, known as the Real Escape Game. It was run in Kyoto, Japan, in July 2007 as single room game for teams of 5-6 players (SCRAP, 2007). Over the years, SCRAP has continued to run escape rooms, but has also become known for running a Real Escape Game Event, which is for hundreds or thousands of players in a large space. However, SCRAP s first game was an escape room, much as is seen today in the facilities who participated in this survey. Rooms grew rapidly in first in Asia, then across Europe (with Hungary being a significant hub), and then over to Australia, Canada, and the USA. There are numerous interactive media precursors to the Escape Room concept. As part of this survey, the owners of escape rooms were asked what their inspiration was to start an escape room. About 65% of the survey respondents said that their inspiration came from playing in or learning about another escape room; common organizations named were SCRAP from Japan, Parapark in Budapest, Hinthunt in London, and Escape the Room in NYC. The rest of the respondents were not aware of other escape rooms when they started. Their inspiration came from a variety of sources. A few of them were inspired by adventure movies like the Indiana Jones series or horror films like Cube, Saw. Dr. Scott Nicholson runs the Because Play Matters game lab at the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University. He is also a lifelong gamer, has designed two published board games (Tulipmania 1637 and Going, Going, Gone), is a co- author of Cthulhu Live (1 st edition), and was the Scott behind Board Games with Scott, the first web- based video series about board games. He was a librarian, and now studies how games and play can be used for informal learning. He is designing an escape room for Fort Stanwix National Monument, an 18 th century fort, in Rome, New York. More of Dr. Nicholson s writings and talks can be found at 3

4 More of them were inspired by prior forms of interactive media; exploring these sources paints a more robust history of the escape room phenomenon. Precursor 1: Live- Action Role- Playing One game genre that feeds into escape rooms is role- playing games, and more specifically, live- action role- playing games. As the popularity of Dungeons and Dragons grew, gamers wanted to experience their tabletop fantasies in more immersive settings. In the 1980s, a number of national organizations, such as the New England Role playing Organization (NERO) and the International Fantasy Gaming Society (IFGS), provided rulesets and scenarios for players to dress up in costume, arm themselves with foam- covered weapons, and engage in scenarios that combined role- playing, puzzle solving, and combat (Simkins, 2015). Some of these escape room precursors had players searching for clues and solving puzzles to escape from locked rooms made of tarp- covered frames out in the woods. True Dungeon took these concepts from live- action role- playing and created an event for Gen Con in 2003 where players worked through rooms solving puzzles under a time limit. Each player had a character, and fought monsters through a shuffleboard system, but there was no live- action combat. The focus was on the mental skills and using class abilities instead of roleplaying, and continues to be one of the most popular events at Gen Con (True Adventures, 2014). Precursor 2: Point- and- Click Adventure Games & Escape- the- Room Digital Games Another game genre in which escape room roots can be found includes interactive fiction games and it's graphical implementation, point- and- click adventure games. Text- based interactive fiction games, most popular in the 1980s, require players to explore locations, find and combine items, and solve puzzles by giving textual commands to a computer. As mice and computer graphics became commonplace, this underlying game concept transitioned into point- and- click adventures; these two- dimensional games required players to explore settings to locate items, combine these items in unusual ways to overcome barriers, solve puzzles, and occasionally engage in insult sword- fighting to continue the story and explore the world. Myst was a popular puzzle- based game that took these games into a rich 3- D space; some describe escape rooms as Live- action Myst. One direction that the genre moved into was web- based games (and now mobile apps) where players were trapped in a room and had to discover and combine items to solve puzzles and escape. These games became known as Escape- The- Room games, and some of the creators of today s physical escape rooms were inspired by these digital games. Precursor 3: Puzzle Hunts & Treasure Hunts Another game genre that was an inspiration to escape room creators was puzzle hunts. In a puzzle hunt, players work in teams to solve a series of puzzles, many of which are paper- based or digitized versions of paper- based puzzles, which then lead to other puzzles, typically with a goal of solving a meta- puzzle that the other puzzles feed into. The puzzle hunt genre has been around for decades, with the MIT Mystery Hunt being one of the best known traditions where the prize for winning the Mystery Hunt is the honor of creating the hunt for the next year. There continues to be a growth in puzzle hunts, some of which center on pubs and the social experience while others provide incredibly challenging and complex puzzles. The puzzles in escape rooms are usually simpler than those found in challenging puzzle hunts, but the team- based experience of solving puzzles is the same. Many escape rooms are structured after puzzle hunts, but with a focus on physical puzzles in a limited space for a single team. 4

5 A related activity is the treasure hunt or Schnitzeljagd (in German), where players follow a series of clues in order to discover a treasure. These clues may be puzzles or riddles, and players work together to overcome the challenges and win the game. Modern versions of these treasure hunt games include geocaching, where players either are given GPS coordinates or must solve puzzles to discover coordinates and then, once at the location, search for a hidden box, and letterboxing, which is similar but starts with textual or multimedia clues instead of coordinates. The same combination of hunting and puzzle solving goes on in an escape room, but in a confined space. Precursor 4: Interactive Theater and Haunted Houses The growth of interactive theater runs parallel to the growth of escape rooms. In both cases, participants are invited to engage with their environments in an interactive space that allows them to take an active role in their entertainment. Some of the creators of Escape rooms mentioned Sleep No More and Then She Fell, two interactive theater experiences in New York City, as inspirations for their escape rooms. Haunted houses are closely related to these interactive theater experiences, as small groups of participants move from space to space engaging with actors and exploring a story. Many flock to horror- themed escape rooms that combine elements of haunted houses with puzzle hunts where players are trapped in the dark, taunted by chained- up zombies or shackled to walls. These lines will continue to blur with interactive haunted houses, such as Trapped at Knott s Berry Farm, where players taking on tasks and solving simple puzzles to find their way out of a haunted house. Precursor 5: Adventure Game Shows and Movies There have been televised game shows and reality shows that put players in situations where they have to work in teams to solve puzzles and escape a situation. One of the earliest shows from the 1980s in the UK was The Adventure Game, where small teams performed a series of physical puzzle- based tasks to get out of rooms that would fit perfectly in today s escape rooms (Labyrinth Games, n.d.). Knightmare, another series from the UK from the mid- 80s, put children in teams where one player wore a helmet and wandered around in front of a blue screen and interacted with props and actors while teammates watched a rendered version of the activities and provided advice (Child, 2009). Fort Boyard and The Crystal Maze and were both team- based game shows started in the 1990s that combined physical prowess and mental agility (Virtue, 2015) but lost the narrative that the earlier shows relied upon. Themed entertainment industry Adventure game shows & movies Live- aclon role- playing Escape Rooms Point- and- Click adventures Puzzle & Treasure hunts These early game shows were a precursor to the reality shows that followed, starting with Survivor and The Amazing Race. Many of these reality shows had large- scale games and puzzles that players had to work together to solve, thus providing inspiration for escape room creators to develop the sense of spectacle that these shows provide. The popularity of these shows raised the cultural awareness of the activity of working together to solve a series of puzzles and accomplish tasks in a physical world. Interaclve theater & haunted houses Movies that portray adventures also have inspired some creators of escape rooms. Matt Duplessie (2013) was inspired to start 5Wits by the Indiana Jones series of movies, as he wanted to create the opportunity for the 5

6 player to live the adventure. Other escape room proprietors pointed to horror adventures like Saw and Cube as inspiration for escape rooms, as players are trapped in a space and have to rely upon their wits to escape. In 2015, there was a traveling escape room designed to promote Dig, and there will be many such tie- ins in the future between different forms of media and escape rooms. Precursor 6: Themed Entertainment Industry Escape rooms are at the intersection of games and themed entertainment, which creates a challenge for those planning and running escape room games as a business. Escape rooms are not the first commercial enterprises built around live- action puzzles. A few precursor businesses for escape room- like activities were Entros, a restaurant founded in Seattle in 1993 but no longer open, where diners participated in mystery games that took them throughout the restaurant, solving physical puzzles while others continued to dine (Ament, 1994). 5 Wits is a US franchise which first opened in 2003 and has teams working together to solve physical puzzles in an immersive environment within a certain amount of time to escape to the next room (5 Wits Productions, 2012). MagiQuest, a feature of the Great Wolf Lodge franchise where players go on a scavenger hunt for items powered by a book of riddles and an electronic wand, debuted in 2006 (Creative Kingdoms, 2012). Many escape rooms were started independently of other rooms and the creators were instead inspired by one of many different gaming genres and experiences. It is important to recognize that there was not a single escape room that started the phenomenon, but inspiration from a variety of genres such as live- action role- playing, point- and- click adventure games, puzzle hunts, interactive theater, and haunted houses that created the spark in someone s head to create an escape room. Demographics of Survey Respondents The primary method of contacting escape room facilities was either through e- mail address or Web- based contact forms. The Escape Room Directory ( was the starting point, and then web searching and other directories were used to locate other facilities. Out of 404 facilities contacted with the unsolicited request for the survey, 175 (43%) eventually filled out at least some of the survey. This survey was presented in several stages; responders were told that they could quit the survey at any time, so the number of people who answered any specific question may be different than the number of people who started filling out survey. The first stage of the survey contained questions about the escape room facilities, and 175 facilities participated in this survey; Appendix A lists the names of the facilities who wished to be recognized for their participation in this main study. The second stage of the survey, which was repeatable up to 5 times, asked respondents to discuss a specific escape room; 124 different facilities described 224 different escape rooms. After the primary survey was closed, several other questions emerged from discussions with survey participants, so a follow- up survey was sent to survey participants; 61 participants participated in the follow- up survey. Table 1 shows the breakdown of participants by continent. In what continent are you located? Count Percentage Asia 18 10% Australia 10 6% Europe 91 52% 6

7 Multiple 5 3% North America 44 25% South America 1 1% (blank) 6 3% Grand Total % Table 1: Survey participants by continent This breakdown demonstrates the English- language bias in this survey. There are hundreds of escape rooms in China and Japan, but most of the responses from Asia are from Singapore or Malaysia. In fact, throughout the survey, when the results refer to Asia, they are referring primarily to Singapore and Malaysia. I expect that since my request for the survey response was in English and was using an English- language survey instrument, the language barrier prohibited getting a response from the Chinese and Japanese facilities that were contacted. This represents a bias in the sampling method, and therefore, a bias in the results. The Multiple responses are from franchises that listed locations that were from different areas. Since there was only one response from South America, and one goal of this survey is to not reveal secrets about any specific location, it is grouped with those from North America from this point onward. Demographics of Players One of the draws of Escape rooms is that they are appealing to a wide portion of the population. Not only are they appropriate for groups of friends, they also appeal as an activity for families and other intergenerational groups. Proprietors were asked about the demographic breakdown of the primary features of their player groups. About 37% of groups are groups of players over 21 about 14% of players are families with parents and children, while 19% are groups of players under 21. Corporate clients make up about 19% of the customers for escape rooms, and 11% of groups are couples out on a date. That said, in Asia, the Escape rooms are more likely to attract groups of only younger players (about 36% of users) than groups of adults (25%). 7

8 Escape Room Player Groups Corporate groups 19% Inter- generalonal 14% Date night 11% Groups of adults (over 21) 37% Groups of young adults (under 21) 19% Figure 3: Primary classification of Escape Room player groups There is considerable discussion about genders and games. Unlike some forms of gaming, escape rooms draw in players of both genders relatively equally. About 70% of the groups that play through rooms are of mixed genders, and the remaining groups are equally split between all male and all female. In Asia and Australia, however, gender balance is even more the case, with 85% of all groups being of mixed genders. Throughout this study, questions about gender continued to return the result of an relatively equal balance of male and female players. Gender Breakdown of Player Groups All Female 14% Mixed Genders 71% All Male 15% Figure 4: Gender Breakdown of Player Groups This gender balance is represented in the staff that work at Escape rooms, as about 55% of the staff at Escape rooms are male. Again, this is a pleasant surprise, as the games industry and game shops are 8

9 well- known for being staffed primarily by males. Having female staff members at a facility will make it more likely that female players will feel welcome. Descriptions of Facilities About 24% of the Escape Room facilities offer one single room, another 27% offer two different rooms, and 18% offer three different rooms. The remaining facilities offer more rooms. The facilities in Asia are more likely to have more rooms, with 66% of escape room facilities in Asia offering 4-6 different rooms. This may be reflective of the significant number of survey respondents from Asia being from Singapore and Malaysia. Those facilities from Asia answering the survey were are also more likely to be located in large indoor shopping malls than facilities other continents; 42% of Asian responders were located in a mall. As a point of comparison, only 6% of all respondents were located in a large shopping mall, while 57% are located in single buildings shared with other tenants. If an escape room is located in a shopping mall, it needs to have a variety of rooms to appeal to the wide demographic groups that walk by the mall storefront; therefore, the higher number of rooms is required to raise the chance that a room will be appealing and available when a potential customer walks by. Some Escape rooms are in interesting locations, such as a Barn with a western town look (Escape Maze, Peterboro, Ontario), Former military complex (Room Escape Amsterdam), Old neglected building (Breakroom, Vilnius, Lithuania), An old stock exchange building (Sherlocked Mystery Experiences, Amsterdam), and An Escape Igloo at a ski resort (Enigmarium Escape Room, Ljubljana, Slovenia, 2015). On average, an Escape Room facility is open about 60 hours per week. Facilities in Asia and Europe are more likely to be open longer, with an average of about 73 hours per week, while facilities in North & South America are open fewer hours, with an average of 40 hours per week. Escape Room Competition, Costs, and Team Size Escape rooms are a competitive market. Some proprietors who were first into a small market complain about a rush of other rooms opening up in the same small market, charging lower prices and hurting business. Numerous accusations have arisen of one company stealing the puzzles and gameplay from another room. This mirrors what is going on in the mobile gaming market; one person spends years crafting a game, and a clone comes out days later. Because game mechanisms are not covered under intellectual property laws (at least in the United States), game designers have always faced this frustration. That said, this freedom does create the ability to take a mechanism created by one person and improve upon it, thus allowing for a rapid evolution in games that would not be possible if game mechanisms were protected. This phenomenon can be seen in the table below. In Asia, where escape rooms have been established the longest, half of those 9

10 surveyed believe the market for escape rooms is oversaturated. In Europe, half of those surveyed believe there are an appropriate number of escape rooms. North & South America has the highest number of proprietors who say they are they are only escape room in the area. This is certain to change within a few years. Asia Australia Europe North & South America The market is oversaturated in the area. 50% 43% 17% 12% There are a few competitors in the area, 8% 29% 23% 29% but there is room for more Escape Room facilities in the area. There are an appropriate number of 33% 14% 50% 32% Escape rooms for the area. We are the only Escape Room in the area. 8% 14% 8% 24% (blank) 0% 0% 2% 3% Table 2. Perception of market saturation in early This infographic, created by three Escape Room blogs from the Toronto area (EscapistTO, Escape Games Review, and Esc Room Addict, 2015) demonstrates the rapid growth of escape room facilities across Ontario, Canada starting with the first one in October 2013 up through the 45 th facility in January This is not unusual; similar patterns of growth have been reported in other cities where the escape room phenomenon has caught on. Escape Room Costs As Escape rooms are a new and competitive market, many customers don t have an expectation as to how much a room should cost. The two most common models are charging per player (55%) or charging per team (39%). There are also hybrid models, where there is a base cost for the room plus an additional fee per player or banded models where, for example, there is one price for 2-4 players and another price for 5-8 players. In addition, because it is a new market and many proprietors have opened Escape Rooms in a market without being aware of other models, price structures vary. After the first escape room opens in an area, it sets a model which many follow for that market. This can be seen in the table below; all of the Asian facilities that responded charge per person, while in Europe, it is more common to charge per team. Figure 5: Ontario escape rooms timeline Do you charge per person or per team for an experience? Asia Austra lia Europ e North & South Americ a Ove rall Per Team 0% 29% 63% 12% 39% Per Person % 29% 85% 55% 10

11 % Other 0% 0% 8% 3% 5% Table 3. Methods of charging for escape rooms. When converted to USD, the overall average cost per person to play in an escape room is $ In most markets, there are rooms that charge much less than that ($5.00 in Asia, $12.00 in Europe and $13.00 in North & South America). For the facilities that charge by the team, the average cost to play the game is $74.42 per team. European rooms come in below that average, while rooms on other continents are higher. However, after taking that cost and dividing it by the GDP per capita for the country in which the escape room is located, the Asian rooms (per person) and the European rooms (per team) come out as more expensive when considering local economies (World Bank, 2014). Cost to play / GDP per capita Per Player Per Team Asia 0.09% NA Australia 0.05% 0.14% Europe 0.06% 0.30% North & South America 0.05% 0.18% Overall Average 0.06% 0.29% Table 4. Average percentage of GDP per capita of room cost. Escape Room Team Size To be able to compare the rates by team and by player, it is important to know the team size and how teams are put together. In about 60% of the escape rooms, each group of players is in their own room; of these facilities, about two- thirds of these facilities charge by the player and one- third charge by the team. In the other 40% of escape rooms, players are charged individually, and small groups of players are put together in the same room. These models create very different player experiences: when players are in a room with only people that they already know, they will be more comfortable and are more likely to be effective as a team. If players are put into a room with strangers, there will be a period of time as players have to learn to engage with each other. This challenge is made more difficult in countries where there are different languages commonly spoken or in a high- tourist area; if members of a team are not able to communicate well, it can create a frustrating experience. Players in Asia and Europe are much less likely to be put into rooms with strangers; only about 20% of responding facilities from these continents put small groups of players together on a team. In North America, it is a much more common practice about 60% of responding facilities place small groups of people together. This may be because of the language issues or because of cultural issues of how accepting players would be of playing a game with strangers; from a capacity standpoint, it makes sense to put multiple groups into the same room, but from a player experience standpoint, this might drive people away if this is not something that would be acceptable by people in the local culture. The average team size overall is 4.58 people. Teams in Europe are the smallest, with an average of 3.98, while teams in North & South America are the largest, with an average of Overall, the average minimum size per team is about 3 people and the average maximum team size is slightly over 7 people. The smallest minimum team size reported was 2 and the largest team size reported in Europe was 7, in 11

12 Asia was 10, and in North & South America was 16. Looking at team size per continent tells more of the story. Escape room teams in Europe and Australia were smaller and Asia and the Americas are larger, as can be seen in the figure below. Average Minimum and Maximum Team Size Asia Australia Europe North & South America Overall Maximum Minimum Figure 6: Average Minimum and Maximum team size But What s Behind the Door? The mystery of what is behind the entry door in an escape room creates incredible tension and giddiness in players. When waiting for their game, the tension in the air is high; people are nervous and quiet, as they don t know what to expect. Once in the room, teams start slow, figuring out their surroundings, but before long a burst of excitement takes over and the team members are running from place to place, calling out discoveries, and hunched over puzzles in small groups. As they leave the game, the excitement level is high, and many rooms allow for time for the players to talk to the staff about their experience before taking a photo of the team. The discussion of the shared experience continues long after leaving the facility; in the live- action role- playing community, this shared discussion of an activity is known as froth, and is what a good escape room creator seeks to generate (Howitt, 2012). In the survey, escape room proprietors described between one and five games from their facility. One hundred and twenty four facilities described a total of 224 rooms, with most participants describing one or two rooms (and a hearty thanks to the 10 facilities that described either 4 or 5 different rooms!) The breakdown of rooms by continent can be found in the table below. 12

13 Country Number of Rooms Described Percentage of all Rooms Described Asia 29 13% Australia 17 8% Europe % Multiple 8 4% North & South America 59 26% (blank) 3 1% Grand Total % Table 5. Breakdown by continent of games described on the survey. Game Themes and Narratives For purposes of this discussion, the terms themes and narratives will be used in specific ways. For the integration of theme and/or narrative, there are several levels: Escape rooms can be a collection of puzzles and tasks without a theme or a narrative. Escape rooms can have a theme, such as Escape from the Haunted Basement or Deep Space Desertion, where the decorations, audio track, and props in the room match up with the theme, but there is no overarching story. This would be akin to being on a movie set without a script; players can choose to add in their own story, but there isn t a narrative provided. The puzzles could stand independently outside of the room and do not rely upon the theme. Escape rooms can have a narrative and the players are placed into a role into the narrative through some type of a pre- game video or story presented by the game master. The goal may tie into this narrative, but the puzzles done throughout the room do not necessarily move the narrative can and can stand apart from the narrative. Finally, escape rooms can have a narrative, and craft the puzzles such that the puzzles are part of the storytelling and move the narrative along. The puzzles cannot be separated from the narrative, as they are part of the story. The figure below presents how many games fell into each of the above categories. Rooms described from North & South America were more likely to have a theme but no narrative than the other categories, while 52% of the rooms from Asia had puzzles integrated into the story. 13

14 ConnecLon of NarraLve/Theme to Puzzles No theme 13% Theme but no narralve 27% Storytelling through Puzzles 39% NarraLve only in backstory and goal 21% Figure 7: Integration of Narrative/Theme to Puzzles It is important to note that none of these are the right design path. Some players of escape rooms are simply wanting to work on puzzles with friends in the physical world, so the narrative can get in the way. For some players, having a theme can add to the ambience and fun, but they are not really wanting listen to a detailed backstory; they want to focus on puzzles and tasks. On the other hand, some players are seeking a strong narrative experience and want to have immersion; these players get frustrated when the puzzles or the game master takes them out of that narrative space. Different game styles are best for different player types. Designers need to consider their goal, work to meet that goal, and then ensure that the games are marketed and described in a way to help players choose the best room. Facilities also reported about the theme of specific rooms; they could choose more than one from the list as the themes might overlap (see the table below). Horror themes are more popular in Asia, with 24% of the reported rooms having a Horror theme. The most popular theme in Europe is a specific time and place from the last century, while the rooms from Asia and the Americas are more likely to be set in the modern era. Modern Era ( ) Specific place and time ( ) Other Specific place and time ( ) Horror Fantasy Science / Laboratory Abstract: There is no theme Future / Technological Overall 25% 24% 16% 13% 13% 12% 12% 10% 7% 14

15 Military Toy Room Cartoon/Anime Steampunk Seasonal (Christmas, Halloween, Easter, etc.) School Table 6. Themes/Genres of escape rooms 7% 3% 1% 1% 1% 0% After learning about themes, rooms were then asked to select the overarching concept. As can be expected in a survey of escape rooms, the most common concept was to escape a room, with 16% of the rooms having no other narrative other than Escape the Room and 30% of the rooms about escaping a specific place (which would bring a theme into the room). After this primary concept of Escape something, the concepts were widely scattered, and can be seen in the table below. Escape a Specific Unpleasant Place (Dungeon, Prison, Preschool, etc.) Abstract: There is no overarching narrative other than "Escape the Room" Investigate a Crime or Mystery Engage with the supernatural Solve the Murder Defuse the explosive device Be an Adventurer Gather Intelligence or Espionage Carry out a Heist Other Find the Missing Person Help Create Something (such as a cure, a potion, etc.) Military Operations Free another person or animal Survive! Carry out an Assassination Table 7. Concepts/Narratives for escape rooms Overall 30% 16% 9% 8% 5% 5% 4% 4% 4% 3% 3% 2% 2% 2% 1% 0% Connecting the narrative themes to gender preferences leads to some interesting observations (see table 8). Males are more interested in games focused on Military Operations, Escaping an Unpleasant Place, Engaging with the Supernatural, Solving the Murder, and Finding the Missing Person. Females are more interested in Freeing another Person or Animal, Carrying out a Heist, and Abstract Rooms without a Narrative. This is useful for Escape Room facilities with multiple rooms, in that they can ensure they have a variety of narratives available to engage both male and female players. 15

16 Females are more interested in this room. Males and females are equally interested Military Operations 0% 60% 40% Defuse the explosive device 18% 64% 18% Free another person or animal 25% 75% 0% Abstract: There is no overarching narrative 16% 76% 8% other than "Escape the Room" Escape a Specific Unpleasant Place 4% 78% 18% (Dungeon, Prison, Preschool, etc.) Engage with the supernatural 0% 80% 20% Solve the Murder 0% 83% 17% Find the Missing Person 0% 86% 14% Carry out a Heist 13% 88% 0% Table 8. Concepts/Narratives for escape rooms where there was a gender preference Males are more interested in this room. Many narrative paths listed above do not necessarily make sense with a story element of you are trapped in a room and must escape. This means that to fit the escape room name, the designer must add a layer onto the game of the players being trapped in some way and needing to escape. Facilities were asked in what percentage of the games were players actually needing to escape the room as part of the narrative. Overall, about 70% of escape room games require players to actually escape the room as part of the winning condition. This means that 30% of the games in escape room facilities aren t actually about escaping rooms. For the Asian respondents, however, this percentage was much higher 96% of games in Asian escape rooms require players to escape a room, while in Australia and the Americas, only about 60% of escape room games are about escaping a room. Puzzle Organization Most rooms require players to search for clues and puzzles and then solve those puzzles. Some rooms also have tasks, which are activities where the players know what to do and have to succeed at the task (like a laser maze). There are different ways that puzzles can be organized. They can be presented individually, where each puzzle feeds directly into a large meta- puzzle or sequentially, where one puzzle must be solved to unlock what is needed to work on the next puzzle. Examples of these forms can be seen in the figure below, where the circles are puzzles and the rectangles are either meta- puzzles, locks, or other victory conditions for a stage of the escape room. 16

17 Figure 8: Basic Forms of Puzzle Organization The most common method of organization (45% of the described games) is path- based, where a team is presented with several different paths of puzzles at the same time. Each path of puzzles is a sequence and leads to a final result. Each of these results is needed for a meta- puzzle, which will then unlock the next stage of the game or the victory condition. The advantage to this structure is that different members of a team can work on different puzzle paths at the same time, but by presenting a subset of puzzles, the designer can start with simpler puzzles and then move into more difficult puzzles as the players grow in confidence and familiarity. The second most common method of organization (37% of the described games) is sequential, where the players are presented with one puzzle, the answer of which will unlock the next puzzle in the sequence, and the final puzzle allows players to win the game. This works better in smaller rooms or when puzzles require the entire team to work together in a series of linear tasks. This method of organization was more popular in described games from Asia (62% of games) than the path- based organization described above. Much less common (13% of the described games) were open structures, where the players had the ability to take a large number of puzzles in the room at the same time. As they solved puzzles, they got pieces of the final solution. This is more difficult to use when creating a scaffolded, flow- based experience where the game gets more challenging as time goes on. There are some facilities that use a hybrid model, where the team may start with a few puzzles presented in sequence, and then this opens up into a path- based model as the team gets into the flow of the room. It could also go the other way, where it starts with a open or path- based model, and then the puzzles become fewer but more challenging at the end of the room. Another hybrid model is a pyramid structure, shown in the figure below, which starts with multiple path- based puzzles, each of which feeds into a meta- puzzle that starts a sequence, which creates another path- based structure leading to a meta- meta puzzle. 17

18 Figure 9: A Pyramid puzzle structure The reality is that many puzzle rooms have much more complex structures. The figure below shows a map of puzzles and how they relate created by David Staffell and David Middleton for Bewilder Box Brighton, UK. Each star represents a starting point on a puzzle chain, and the connections show how results from multiple puzzles come together. This model is more realistic for how puzzles connect together in many rooms. Figure 10: Complex puzzle structure used in Bewilder Box Brighton ( 18

19 Puzzle Types The next area of exploration is the specific types of puzzles in each room. This is the topic that was most sensitive for facility owners, as it is their goal to protect the content of the games. The table below lists many puzzle types, sorted by how many rooms were described that contained puzzles of that type. A running joke used in adventure video games is start to crate, which is how long a player must play a game before finding a breakable object (Old Man Murray, 2000). The equivalent running joke in escape rooms could be time to blacklight, as many rooms turn to blacklights in order to add hidden information in a room. Evidence for the popularity of blacklight- based puzzles is that light is the 3nd most popular puzzle type. Each continent had a type of puzzle that was noticeably more favored than it was in other areas. Asian escape rooms were more likely to have counting puzzles (62%), rooms from North & South America were more likely to have players assemble a physical puzzle than on other continents (58%), and rooms in Europe were more likely to have players search for objects in images (56%). What puzzle types are in the room? Searching for physical objects hidden in the room 78% Team Communication 58% Light 54% Counting 53% Noticing something "obvious" in the room 49% Symbol substitution with a Key (such as looking symbols up in a book) 47% Using something in an unusual way (Out- of- the- box thinking) 47% Searching for objects in images 43% Assembly of a Physical object (such as a jigsaw puzzle) 40% Algebra and other Mathematics 39% Pattern identification (such as visualizing a shape in a set of dots) 38% Riddles 37% Ciphers without a Key (such as letter substitution) 35% Hearing 26% Mirrors 26% Abstract logic (such as Sudoku) 22% Research using information sources 20% Strategic thinking (such as Chess) 20% Hand- eye Coordination (such as shooting a target) 17% Rope or chains (such as undoing complex knots) 16% Traditional Word Puzzles (such as crosswords or word search) 14% Mazes 14% Physical Agility (such as a laser maze) 13% Touch 12% Knowledge of facts not provided in the room 11% Shape manipulation (such as a matchstick puzzle) 11% Liquids 9% 19

20 Social engagement with actors Physical engagement with actors Smell Taste Table 9. Types of Puzzles in escape rooms 7% 4% 3% 1% Other Aspects of the Rooms Non- Player Characters About 10% of games that were described used an actor or actress in the room as a non- player character (NPC) to interact with the players. A few of the games (2%) used an NPC to provide the players with the backstory and goal for the game, but more games did this with a short video or piece of text. Other rooms (4% overall, but 14% of the rooms from North & South America) had an NPC in the room to help the players along. Another role for a NPC is to serve as an adversary and difficulty control for the teams (4% overall, but 8% of the rooms from North & South America). There is an escape room franchise Room Escape Adventures that is well- known for their Trapped in a Room with a Zombie game. In this game, there is an NPC made up like a zombie chained to the wall. Every five minutes, the chain grows longer, and if a player is touched by the zombie, that player can no longer move around the room (Bucket List Productions, 2015). Computers in the Rooms Instead of having a human non- player character, rooms may have a computer that the players interact with. This computer can be used in several ways. It can be used as the platform for a puzzle that the players must solve. It could also be used as a way to interact with the players, responding to commands and requests. This computer can either be a program that is designed ahead of time to respond to players' commands (like an interactive fiction or point- and- click adventure game) or the computer can connect to a gamemaster on the other side playing the role of the computer or someone the players are chatting with. Having the computer does take away from the physical nature of the escape rooms. A computer creates a situation where one player will be sitting down in front of a screen, and that person will no longer be in the same mental space with the rest of the players. Overall, about 70% of described escape room games are completely physical activities. Games from Europe were less likely to be purely physical (58%) while games described from Asia were more likely to be pure physical experiences (86%). If there was a computer, most of the time it was used to facilitate puzzles for the player, but occasionally (5% overall, but 9% of games from Europe) it would be used to create a virtual space where the players must enter as part of the challenge. Because European rooms are typically smaller than rooms in other areas, computers help them to add puzzles and layers that they can't do as easily in a physical space. Different Physical Spaces When referring to a single game, the term used is an escape room in the singular; however, the reality is that most escape rooms have multiple physical spaces that the players work through. For example, the players may start in a secretary s room, which has another door leading to an office. Within that office may be a bookshelf that reveals another area. These physical spaces create different stages of the game, and the designer can use this technique to create an increasing flow of complexity in the game. 20

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